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The Arc builds respect for people with disabilities


Greg Falk
Greg Falk seeks to create caring community and funding stability.

As the Arc of Spokane supports and advocates for people who have developmental or intellectual disabilities, it spreads the message that “they are people like you and me,” said executive director Greg Falk.

He has found that many people have connections with people with disabilities, some temporary and some long-term.  After his wife, Sharon, was in an accident that shattered her leg, he learned when wheeling her in a wheel chair about which facilities are accessible and which are not.

While some may need to change their way of thinking about people with disabilities, he said that others just need to be reminded and encouraged to act on the impulses they already have to be kind and inclusive and fair.

The Arc is committed to making the community more welcoming, inclusive and supportive for individuals of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities and for their families.

“We respect the people we serve, and when I go to places where our programs operate I see smiles,” he said.

While many of The Arc’s programs support people with disabilities by providing activities, financial management, and political and individual advocacy, part of improving their quality of life is engaging and educating the community.

The goal is to help constituents receive a good education, achieve greater independence, be employed, live in the community in decent housing, and enjoy friendships and activities.

One man with a disability told Greg he wants people to know that if they ever needed help, he would help them.

“He wanted the world to know he’s not always the one who needs help.  He’s also somebody who can give help,” Greg said.

Many people ignore people with disabilities, not realizing how hurtful it is, he said, telling of a man who used an electric wheelchair because he had physical disabilities, but his intellectual capacity was fine.

He told Greg that he wished “people would just look at me and say ‘Hi.’ People turn their eyes away from me. When I’m in a grocery store, I love it that children often run up and say, ‘Why are you in that chair?’”

However, the man said, often the children’s parents tell them to “stop bothering that man.”

People with disabilities want to be looked at and interacted with like anyone else, Greg said.  Because familiarity lowers apprehension, and as people are exposed to people who are different they become more comfortable.  So The Arc offers ways to do that.

• Arc volunteers recognized the desire of people with disabilities to be seen as others when they started the Community Fun Run, an event that fosters interaction between people with and without disabilities. The event has grown since April 2010 from nearly 50 people to 350 in 2013. People of all ability levels run, walk or traverse the course in wheelchairs.

• Part of helping the community learn to interact well with people who have disabilities is working on the language they use. The Arc and students at Gonzaga University are involved with a national campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word, which seeks to end use of the word “retarded” as offensive, derogatory and exclusive.

• The Arc also recently organized a program. Photo Voice, which paired individuals with disabilities with a professional or amateur photographer, who volunteered and spent time learning about their partners. They then helped their partners use images to express what they wanted to tell people about themselves.

• The Arc also provides free access to a riding stable, Free Rein, for adults with developmental disabilities to ride horses for free.

• The reminder to be just, kind and fair extends to the business community through an annual Hire Ability Day in October, which started 10 years ago to persuade employers to include people with developmental disabilities in their work force.

One of The Arc’s goals is to start an awareness campaign to let the community know The Arc does more than pick up used clothing.

Another goal is to increase funding so The Arc’s 190 employees can have a raise.

“Most of our funding is state money,” Greg said. “When the recession hit, they stopped giving us funding to pay raises.”

After five years without giving raises, the Arc now seeks to increase wages about 3 percent each year for the next five years.

While there is always room to move forward, he has been pleased with the progress they’ve made over his time at The Arc.

More than two years ago, The Arc moved from two locations a mile apart into the building that housed Inland Power and Light since 1950 at 320 E. Second Ave.  The $1.8 million for remodeling transformed the building into office spaces and a day center that involves 100 adults a month in activities Mondays through Fridays.

Outside is parking for the trucks that pick up used clothing.  Ten years ago, The Arc earned $125,000 beyond costs from selling clothing to Value Village, supplying about half of their inventory.

Greg said he gained “a heart for people facing disadvantages” from his mother, even as his family moved frequently because his father was a Marine pilot.

He spent his teen years in Seattle after his father retired. He moved to Spokane as a newlywed in 1976, to attend Whitworth University.  In 1978, he graduated with a degree in religious studies and moved to Eugene, Ore., for a job.  He returned to Seattle to pursue a master’s degree in health administration at the University of Washington, graduating in 1985.

Greg worked about 15 years in health care management.

He and his wife, Sharon, had fond memories of Spokane.  After he had a job interview in Spokane in 1997, they decided to move here.

“We quit our jobs in Seattle,” Greg said. “Neither of us had a job yet in Spokane, so it was nerve wracking for a couple of years, until we found work.”

In Spokane, he worked two years in health care, until he saw an ad in the paper for a job as a program director at The Arc.  He applied and was hired, taking a 45 percent cut in pay, because he felt his work in health care was “not a good fit for me,” Greg said.

He thought working for a social service nonprofit would be a better fit.

For him, it was.  A year after he came to The Arc his boss retired and he applied to be executive director. 

“I enjoy people. I enjoy social service and helping people have a fair advantage in life,” Greg said.

He likes supporting a staff and directors who do great work in the community.

Greg, who attends Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, said the hope and love that stem from his Christian faith are imperative in his work at The Arc.

Much of what The Arc does is “valuing people, caring for them and having empathy,” he said.

“I find that families of and people experiencing disabilities and disadvantages are available to share profoundly about their lives and experiences,” he said.  “What I do is to care for souls.”

When individuals and families first learn about their disabilities, they experience both loss and gain, he said.

Parents may lose their dreams of their children being great quarterbacks or having other future opportunities, but they gain in empathy as they begin a lifelong commitment to care for a family member, Greg said.

For him, hope is the most important aspect of leadership.  Part of the role of a leader, he said, is helping people find their aspirations, and “continually stoking the fire of ‘We can do great things if we put our minds to it.’”

For information, call 328-6326 or email gfalk@arc-spokane.org.





Copyright © December 2013 - The Fig Tree